Amidst the thundering rains of this spring, which every bush, tree and weed rooted on our half-acre of taxable property vigorously relishes, we’ve enjoyed several ‘calm after the storm’ evenings and weekends. Trying to take advantage of the spurts of sun, I’ve attempted impromptu BBQs with friends and last-minute tennis matches with the usual partners. So often are the replies “We’ll be or we’re on a cruise.” The destinations seem to reflect the recent popularity of Downton Abbey and its PBS sponsor, Viking Cruise Lines. Plus, our academic community of UNC and Duke MDs and professors likes to vacation in a pattern of life-long learning. There’s no hitting every major league ball park or cruising to Sturgis for my crowd.
I hear of bicycle tours through Provence; palatial barges floating down the Danube; tennis tournaments in Finland; days in Stockholm before days in Saint Petersburg. Every once in a while, someone admits to taking the family to Wilmington for a week at North Carolina’s own shoreline. I guess these guys are not too keen on the Crawleys.
Our local USNA Alumni Chapter hosts 8 monthly luncheons per year in a inconvenient-to-none, convenient-to-none chain restaurant on the outskirts of the Raleigh-Durham airport and off of I-40. It’s not as bad as it sounds and the chow is about the same. We try to get a lot done in 90 minutes, including the guest speaker’s remarks, which leaves little time for lengthy conversations amongst attendees. One gimmick for connecting the group is to poll the audience of their service selections. We have plenty of aviators (I’m always corrected when I, as the MC (more like the class clown), refer to this community as pilots); Marines, both Semper Fi and Sub, are well represented.
I never like asking “How many Surface Warfare Officers are here today?” Surface Warfare! Remember when the training in Newport was referred to as Destroyer School? It’s a Navy; our Navy; The Navy. Why do ships that steam on top of the water and under the stars, America’s Navy, defer in brand-recognition to the other branches of the same service ?
I know that I’m exaggerating and that others can explain the strategic balance of our naval forces better than I so I’ll leave it to them to do this. I’m not stuck on this point because whenever I swap sea stories with the aviators, Marines and nuclear engineers, my ‘liberty in port’ stories are almost always better than their 20,000 leagues under the sea or 20,000 feet in the sky stories. It’s kind of like discussing life in Bancroft Hall before there were female midshipmen (some in the Chapter say before the Academy became the University of Navy, but I won’t go this far because I know that plebe year changed in 1969 before I got to the Yard, very truly yours, English Major Chris). Of course, I never offer such information when I am so exalted by the classes of 1980 and beyond. Actually, I lay it on pretty thick feigning amused amazement, “What! No B-Robes!” “No Tea Fights!” “No Brick Parties (I only saw one and it was pretty lame)!” “No Sock, Jocks and Lock-Box.” Usually, I’ve gone too far on this point, because no one ever knows what a lock-box is.
Now that I think about it, why did anyone ever trust that anything secured in a portable, tin box with a Master combination lock was safe or secure? I realize now the reason that the contents of my lock-box were safe was because I never had anything worth stealing except maybe the lock and the box.
Back to the luncheons and occasions when sea-stories are swapped: I may have been a SWO and I spent 103 consecutive days in Olongapo in 1976 (amongst the numerous drawbacks of a perpetually CASREPed 1200 pound steam plant, including the long lines for penicillin at morning sick call, one highlight was that the Joseph Strauss wardroom won the base softball championship. Another highlight is that the six NROTC 1/c midshipmen who reported aboard for summer training only saw water in one of two ways: a monsoon or crossing the brow into town for an evening of San Miguels and sincere affection from the locals, usually female. One arriving NROTC mid from Tulane University went straight from the Cubi Point Air Field to nightlife Olongapo in his TWLs. As I was the Midshipman Cruise Training Officer, he sent me Christmas cards until he turned 30 years old. I sometimes wonder if he stopped such communication because he expatriated to the PI?!). As a throw-away, I tell the submariners about Korean bar girls, Hong Kong golf, snorkeling in Saipan and the quiet beauty of 20 knots across the Pacific Ocean. I never get around to the dark tales of sea-sickness, tedium, storms, pot-smokers on watch and the endless cycle of gun-decked inspections.
Alas, all of such faux adventures were on deployment, what the Navy calls cruises, i.e. the ship cruises to WestPac on deployment. These sound alert and ready for action even though the long voyage was mundane and the action that the crew was eager to engage was not offered by another navy. I did go on a Navy cruise once and this is the one that I recall whenever one of the local Downton Abbey types informs me of their pending deployment.
AFS–2 USS Sylvania
I just wanted to go to the Mediterranean. I gave up on my flight school ambition; a summer on a submarine could only be trumped by a summer in Bancroft Hall (which I did after the Med cruise and was put in hack by classmate Lee Culver for my lack of squared-awayness. Fortunately, while in said hack, Murdoch and I met Lori and Leslie in front of the Chapel).
After June Week and our too-brief leave period, 6 USNA midshipmen embarked on this fine fighting refrigerator ship aka combat stores ship. I have zip slash recollection of how we got to the Sylvania, although I recall clearly that the return journey involved a helo hop to the Kennedy, helo hop to a military base in either Spain or Italy and a flight to D.C via a long stop in Iceland, concluding with a bus ride to Bancroft Hall.
Talk about a cruise! The passengers, we Mids, and the officers enjoyed 10 section watch, like on the bridge every other day. The wardroom had its own game table, not rigged for 5 hands of poker but a table where 5 guys played poker and the others at the same table participated in a non-stop game of Risk. There was a television-viewing section in this wardroom. And a dining table that seated 14 or so. I’ll repeat this descriptor several times, “being a refrigerator ship (BARS)”, we had delicious bug juices of several colors plus coffee and ice tea around the clock. BARS meant that we supplied steak, movies and ice cream to the other ships in the Med as well as to anyone in any port who provided a desired or needed service that could be expedited for 10 gallons of ice cream or a couple of cans of the latest films from Hollywood. BARS, we watched movies all night when not on every-other-day watch standing.
BARS we had two twin 3-inch gun pods, one on each side. Our commanding officer was highly reluctant to exercise such armament. I guess because no one would sink a refrigerator ship with such goodies aboard unless they thought that the refrigerator ship might accidentally, in a moment of ill-considered panic, shoot back. BARS, whatever we didn’t have, we sent out for via one of the two MH–60 helos. Such replenishment included members of the crew detained in Naples or still in bed in Majorca when the ship recently set sail without them. BARS, everyone, everywhere was happy to see us. For the years when my children were enthralled by the notion of Santa Claus, questioning where he lived when not distributing gifts to worthy children that singular evening, I replied that he lives on a refrigerator ship because BARS feels like Santa the other 364 days.
BARS was not without its nautical value even though the supply department was the largest department reporting to the commanding officer. Getting this single screw tub underway was an adventure in boating, to say the least. As the executive officer was also the ship’s navigator, actual fixes and plots when underway were the cognizance of a first class quartermaster and a third class boatswain mate, Ken and Jerry, tucked away in a tiny Nav Plot with barely enough room for the radar scope and the navigation table. As part of my midshipman practical factors, filling-out questions in a so-called cruise book, one section addressed fundamentals of navigation so I volunteered as part of the Sea and Anchor Navigation Detail, i.e. hanging with Ken and Jerry.
I would be remiss if I did not comment on the Cruise Book process aboard AFS–2. The six first class mids would gather in the spacious wardroom, play Risk, watch Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson films and solicit seaman-like advice from the ship’s officers, including the aviators. Honestly, all we wanted were the answers to the questions and their signatures of validation. This training usually took place as the various reels of the film were being changed or someone was taking too long with their turn at Risk.
As you might imagine, there is one in every crowd where the weight of the Honor Code distorted one’s thinking, and one mid, being concerned that such BARS gouge-sharing might be considered an honor offense by some not familiar with life Before the Mast, shredded and threw his cruise books into the Mediterranean Sea despite the counseling and protests of his five Midshipman 1/c shipmates. The result of which was that the BARS 5 all aced first class cruise and he of the Deep 6 Cruise Book Conscience received a D for his incomplete effort. Just prior to our graduation, he admitted to me his regret for such impulsive behavior.
Back to Ken and Jerry. There are multiple paths to naval service, both officer and enlisted. QM1 Ken Hoteling’s path was via the Galloping Goose Motorcycle Club. Ken netted-out his recruiting yarn as either “jail or the Navy.”
Indeed, Ken was a man of few words. One underway watch in the early morning out of a busy port, he encouraged Jerry to stop sitting on the chart table and to provide radar bearings useful for navigating. As part of his own underway ritual, Jerry liked to play loudly on his boom box the then popular song by Golden Earring, “Radar Love”, so maybe he didn’t hear Ken’s suggestion. Amidst the sounded-powered phone communication with the officer of the deck, plotting fixes on the navigation chart and, essentially, overwhelmed with the detail and the intensity of moment, Ken found time, after repeating his suggestion to Jerry, to lunge at him with his navigation dividers (that instrument with the two sharp, pointy ends). I’m sure that Jerry would have hopped to his duties faster had not the dividers pinned his dungarees to the surface of the chart table right about where the top of his leg attached to his torso. Jerry freed his dungarees, handed Ken the dividers, simply exclaiming, “Jesus, Ken?!”
I recall vaguely a couple of other Ken Hoteling stories such as the time on liberty where as we enjoyed 5 centavo green beers, Ken struck up a friendship with a table of holidaying Swedish men and women even though Ken spoke no Swedish and the Swedes didn’t speak Ken’s English. The U.N. moment abruptly concluded when Ken called Jerry over to share the fellowship and Jerry detoured to a potted tree to throw-up. I think Ken said something like, “Jesus, Jerry?!”
My other Ken-fable passes on his own description of reporting aboard the Sylvania. Apparently drunk and disorderly. Violently so. Either the Shore Patrol brought him to the ship or the Master at Arms (MAA) greeted him with keen disrespect. Ken describes the route to his berthing compartment and assignment to his rack as being ‘dragged by his heels down a ladder where his head did not miss a rung.’ “And that’s a fact,” Ken’s favorite phrase of validation and emphasis. I never took exception. Confined to the ship for 30 days as his welcome aboard packet, Ken encountered the MAA on one of the upper decks of the Sylvania. Somehow, a tussle ensued where the MAA went over the side. Ken remarked to me that he, the MAA, “was lucky it was the side with the water. And that’s a fact.”
Certainly there are other highlights of BARS such as attending a Mozart concert in the ancient Greek amphitheater near Athens; or the cab ride down the side-walk in 5 o’clock traffic so that two of us could get back to the pier in time to catch the last boat back to the Sylvania. Quite the sensation to view out of the right window tables of people seated outdoors and to simultaneously window-shop on the port side of the taxi.
Our son is stationed in Naples.He’s the PAO. I visited him in late winter. I found ourselves near the section of the port where I recalled the Sunday afternoon that the Sylvania got underway on an emergency basis as Naples suffered a typhoid epidemic and the C.O. did not want his ship quarantined. We left about one dozen crew members ashore as we low-tailed it to the sea. BARS, we sent the helos back for the unmustered crew. Ice cream and steaks for all in joyful reunion.
AFS–2 is gone since 1994. Support ships are now manned by civilian crews. Edges soften with time and memories tend to gravitate to the positive. Of all of the places that I’d like to re-visit or the individuals that I’d like to know about, I have no interest in revisiting or updating or verifying the people and circumstances of that summer on the Sylvania. BARS was plenty. And I’m never, ever going on a cruise. How could Viking, Princess or Disney compete?! And that’s a fact.